The use of solitary confinement by corrections systems, including the Bureau of Prisons, has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years (see, for example, here and here). In this regard, Mary Buser, a former Assistant Unit Chief in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island, has just published a book, LOCKDOWN ON RIKERS: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail, that focuses on the practice, among other issues. The following excerpt reflects Ms. Buser’s account of events she witnessed as well as her perspective that most inmates in solitary are non-violent rule breakers often suffering from impulse control disorders, rather than the “worst of the worst.”
Daisy Wilson was my first encounter with someone who might be considered evil, but contrary to the perception that jails are filled with “bad people,” I found few at Daisy’s level of sociopathy. Most are somewhere in the middle, ordinary people who are drug-addicted and may have committed a crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, those who’ve made errors in judgment or who’ve acted impulsively or out of desperation. With a little guidance and support, so many in that middle range had the potential to find their way and move on.
A prime example of someone who was finding her way was Lucy Lopez. After much finagling with the Bureau of Child Welfare, Lucy finally won approval for a visit with Junior, her four- year-old. Lucy was ecstatic and talked of little else. When the “big day” arrived, she raced to the visiting room for a reunion with the child she hadn’t seen in over a year. Her worst fear was that Junior wouldn’t remember her, but as soon as Junior spotted Lucy he cried out, “Mama!”
“It was beautiful,” Lucy told me later. “I held him, talked to him, rocked him on my lap. I never wanted it to end.”
“The only hard part,” she said, “was being nice to that woman.” “That woman” was the foster mother who’d brought Junior to the visit, and who Lucy suspected was the prospective adoptive parent. In preparation for her encounter with the foster mother, Lucy and I had carefully reviewed what she would say. I reminded her that she still had legal recourse to keep her son, but that any angry outburst, while momentarily satisfying, would only work against her in the long run. “Miss Buser,” she said, “you don’t know how bad I wanted to say to her, He’s my baby, not yours!” Lucy stopped and took a deep breath. “But I didn’t, Miss Buser, I didn’t. I just said to her, ‘Thank you for taking such good care of my child.’ It took everything in me to get those words out—everything. But I did it.”
The two of us sat back and smiled. Both the visit and Lucy’s comportment throughout the hour were a huge victory for her. “You handled it all very well,” I said, “very well!”
But a setback was looming. A few days later, Lucy got into a spat with Swanday, one of the instigators in the original Millie Gittens incident. When Swanday told Lucy she’d never see Junior again, Lucy slapped Swanday across the face, knocking her to the floor. In one moment, all of Lucy’s growth seemed to evaporate. She regretted it instantly, but the damage was done. An infraction ticket was issued—a ticket that carried ten days in isolation.
“I can’t believe I lost it like that!” she sobbed in the emergency session that followed. “I’ve gotten through worse than this—much worse! I don’t know what happened to me. And now I’m going into solitary—solitary. I’ll be alone in some dark cell . . . Oh, God! And I won’t see Michael for almost two weeks.”
But the assault on Swanday had further implications. It meant possible expulsion from the nursery, with baby Michael sent out to foster care. A meeting was held to determine whether Lucy could remain, but Camille Baxter, noting Lucy’s hard-fought progress, chalked it up to an unfortunate but isolated incident. “Lucy and Michael aren’t going anywhere,” she said. During Lucy’s absence, the nursery staff would pitch in to care for the baby.
A grateful Lucy said this reprieve would enable her to endure her punishment. A few days later, a captain and a couple of officers arrived to escort her to solitary housing. In a parting embrace with
Michael, Lucy was biting back the tears. But while she steeled her- self, the baby didn’t understand. “Mama, Mama!” he cried.
“All right now,” Camille Baxter said, prying the terrified child from his mother. Lucy grabbed her plastic bag of clothes, and as the baby shrieked, she was led out.
It was a heart-wrenching scene. Slapping Swanday was unacceptable, of course, but solitary confinement seemed like a horrible punishment—not only for Lucy, but for her innocent baby. I thought that something else could surely have been devised that would have taught Lucy a lesson without harming the baby. But this was the one and only jailhouse punishment, a punishment that was meted out every day, in every jail on the island.
Ugly hallway scenes with a crying, pleading woman being dragged along the floor by officers, en route to the solitary unit, were common. Jailhouse protocol dictated that everyone simply step aside as they passed by. It was an awful sight. But Janet told me that punishment for the women was mild compared to the men. “They get much longer sentences,” she said, “and they don’t serve it in their own jails. They get bused over to the Central Punitive Segregation Unit—they call it the ‘Bing.’ Sounds happy and upbeat—it’s anything but. The place is huge, 500 cells.”
As Janet described this grim facility, I felt relieved to be working with women and well insulated from such misery, with no inkling that in time I would become well acquainted with the notorious “jail within jail.”
Lucy’s ten days in isolation came and went, and by now it was early spring, though it hardly felt like it. As the days grew longer, the cold only seemed to grow stronger, but the added daylight encouraged some to venture outside. One late afternoon, through the frozen windowpane, I recognized a bundled-up Tiffany Glover sitting by herself, listening to her Walkman in the courtyard. The wind blew her hair around as she swayed to the music, alone with her thoughts. Although quitting STEP had been a big defeat, she no longer seemed as lost, and I also noticed she wasn’t as thin, which meant she was finally eating. Apparently, Tiffany had been doing a lot of thinking, as she arrived for our next session with a surprising announcement: “I want to join STEP again—I wasn’t ready before, but this time I can do it. I know I can!”
And so Tiffany Glover reenlisted in the STEP program, but this time things were different. She was moving up in the hallway line. No longer greeting me with a weak little smile, she boomed, “Hello, Miss B!” And then Tiffany was right up front, leading the troops through the Rose Singer jail. “Miss B!” she would yell, “look, I’m gettin’ fat!” Reaching into her uniform, she grabbed her midriff to show off a little roll of fat. “Ha, ha!” she laughed. Sure enough, she was actually getting heavy. Like the rest of us, Tiffany would now have to watch her weight. But at least she was in a new realm, having finally broken loose from the grips of addiction, a far cry from the sad person I’d first met in the receiving room. Like Ja- net had said in the beginning, “You will see these people change.” It was a delight to witness.
Tiffany was like a new person, bursting with pride at her success in her second go-round. “I knew I could do it, I knew I could!” And then there was news about her case. “I’m taking the one-to- three,” she said, “which means I’ll be locked up for one year, and then I’ll be on parole for two more. So it means I get to stay here to serve the one year. I’m not going to prison! ’Course, if I mess up when I get out, I could be remanded to serve the other two, but that won’t happen! No way! In less than a year, I’ll be home, Miss Buser—home! I talk to my mother and my baby every night. We tell the baby I’m in the hospital. And when I get out of here, I’m taking care of my son—every day. That’s my new rule,” she beamed. “Every single day! I’m going to be such a good mother. I can’t wait! I just can’t wait!”
Things were certainly looking up for Tiffany. The one-year sentence did mean that she could stay at Rose Singer, as sentences of a year or less were permitted to be served at Rikers. But just when it seemed that nothing could sully this ever-brightening picture, it did. And it happened in a surprising twist that I never saw coming. During our sessions, Tiffany was speaking more and more about one of the officers who’d taken an interest in her.
“You seem very fond of him,” I remarked.
“He’s helped me so much,” she said. “Right after I quit the first time, he kept coming up to me in the halls, telling me to try again.”
“So, he’s been like a coach?”
“Yeah, he really has,” she said, twirling her ponytail. “And maybe a little more.”
“What do you mean?”
She said nothing, but stared at the floor and blushed.
“Tiffany . . . what’s going on here? Has he tried to kiss you or something?”
“Kiss me?” she laughed. “We’ve been having sex!”
“Sure. Outside in the back, there’s these trailers—” “Tiffany!”
“Don’t worry, he’s very responsible. He always uses condoms—always.”
“Oh, I’m sure he does! He’d have a tough time explaining your pregnancy!”
Tiffany’s sunny smile was gone, replaced by concern. “You can’t tell anybody, Miss Buser. You told me when we first started meeting that everything we talked about was confidential. You can’t tell!”
“Tell” was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go straight to the warden and report this predator. The idea that this guy would abuse his authority like this was sickening.
Tiffany’s eyes bored into mine. I had to get hold of my anger. She’d raised an important issue, and it was one that I could not ignore: confidentiality. A therapeutic relationship is a privileged relationship in the eyes of the law, meaning that all conversations are confidential unless the client has a plan to kill himself, to kill another, or is involved in any type of child abuse. We were required to disclose this clause at the outset of therapy, a disclosure Tiffany had well remembered. Having sex with a correction officer did not remotely fit into the criteria of killing oneself, killing another, or engaging in child abuse. I was bound to keep this bombshell to myself.
Reluctantly, I said, “No, I will not repeat this.”
“’Cause that wouldn’t be right,” she said. “After all, I’ve been talking to you freely. I always thought I could trust you.”
“Yes, I know. And you can,” I said, with a little more conviction. “You can. But this is still a big problem.”
“He’s a good guy,” she protested. “He’s helping me. We have plans.”
“Tiffany, this isn’t a good way to start a relationship. You’re not on equal footing, and he’s taking advantage of that. My concern is for you.”
But she could see none of it. From her perspective, she’d found a way to get special treatment in jail—no small feat. But from my standpoint, her relationship with this guy was a replication of her affairs with drug dealers in the streets. There, it was sex for drugs; here, it was sex for priority treatment.
But her jaw was set. She was on top on the world, and I was bringing her down. Although I tried to get us back on a more familiar track, the session ended awkwardly. The following week she missed her appointment, and she never showed up again. I can’t say I was surprised, but I still had a hard time believing the relationship was over. Out in the halls, I tried to get her attention, but she stared straight ahead. No more yelling out to me, no more big smiles. Looking back, I realized that I’d broken the cardinal rule of refraining from judgment. If I’d been a more experienced therapist, maybe I wouldn’t have reacted as strongly. But as I was forced to accept that it was over, I took comfort in knowing that through our work together, Tiffany Glover had still come a long way.
Excerpted with permission from LOCKDOWN ON RIKERS: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail, by Mary E. Buser. Available from St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2015.